All street photographers experience the moment when, having noticed a subject some distance away, they take the shot — only to find that three-quarters of the photo holds little or no visual interest.
One solution is to crop the image, reframing it exactly as you’d wish. Sure, that means throwing away several million pixels — maybe 31 million of them if you’re using a Sony A7RIII.
It sounds a bit extravagant, doesn’t it? Having bought a great camera you’re now reverting to the quality you were getting five years ago.
Maybe it’s time to re-think this problem. What can we do about it?
Frankly, if it’s happening to you frequently, you’re probably using the wrong lens. Instead of a wide-angle you may be better off with a medium telephoto, say 85mm. I love using my Canon 85mm for street photography, even though my standard lens is 40mm. It’s super-sharp, and it gives me the reach to shoot from the other side of the street when necessary. However, it’s not an easy lens to use in close situations because it isolates the subject (often just one part of the subject) and throws everything else out of focus.
But let’s say the problem of filling only a fraction of the image with visually interesting content happens only now and again. Is this because you can’t resist certain subjects, or because you were unable to get in close, or because, subconsciously, you think the blank area really ought to play a role in the image — but doesn’t live up to its promise?
Take my featured image (above), for example. This entrance to a narrow alleyway in Bangkok looks particularly forbidding because a graffiti artist has spray-painted a menacing, mouse-like face on the wall. The face is a cross between Mickey Mouse and The Scream. That can’t be good!
I wanted to show someone bravely entering the alley, but only motor-bikes ventured into it. I snapped one of them. Rather than walk, this guy took a “Bangkok rocket” (motor-bike taxi) to whisk him along the evil alley. On one side is an abandoned store, on the other a derelict building. I had no other way to frame the shot, except by standing back to feature the whole scene.
The result isn’t bad. I like the fact that over half the image shows plain corrugated iron. Its blankness enhances the slice of the photo that contains all the visual interest. At the same time, this plain area is not completely devoid of features. There are little details which break the monotony without spoiling the desolate effect: the log of wood and the lone plant springing up behind the barrier, the latter signifying a long-term closure of the site.
Did I overdo the shutter speed? The 1/800th second certainly froze the action — the bike looks as if it’s stationary, but I assure you it was nipping along quite briskly. I like this effect. It gives the photo a dreamlike quality that would otherwise be lacking. The riders look as if they are “stuck in time,” watched over by Menacing Mickey for eternity.
Of course, I’d seen the evil mouse on other walls around the city and tried to make use of it in some candid portraits. Here’s one example (above). The man, the main subject of the photo, has such a pleasant face he erases the menace of the graffiti. His presence is strong and reassuring. You can see by his orange jacket that he, too, is a motor-cycle taxi driver. Could he be the same one who’s taking the boy down the narrow alley? No, that would be too great a coincidence. As I recall, the two scenes are several miles apart.
So that’s one way to deal with areas of little visual interest. Don’t just throw them away: use them constructively to enhance the main subject of your photograph. Of the two pictures I’ve shown to illustrate this point, I prefer the first one because it fulfils my original intention. The second image works, too, because it’s an “environmental portrait” — featuring a man-of-the-street in front of tough-looking graffiti — but the overall effect is not really menacing, despite the presence of the evil mouse.
Here’s another image (below) where more than half the frame is filled with grey or black. To make matters worse, the grey area has no direct light shining on it — and what’s more, it’s right in the centre of the picture! I puzzled about this for a while and was on the verge of rejecting it as unusable when something stopped me from throwing it away.
Of course! The man (in sunlight) is looking at the green vegetation (also in sunlight). Our eyes may very well be drawn down to the lower half of the image but the message is clear. This is fundamentally an upbeat, cheerful picture, even though the dull cardboard square and the grey grille behind it would have us think otherwise.
Areas of little visual interest can be vital to the success of a photo, as long we don’t get mesmerised by their blank gaze.
That’s right. We can look at our photographs but our photographs can also look back at us: daring us to destroy them unnecessarily. Don’t do it! They may be better than you think.